This is the final post in the Education Series. On February 13, 2017, I began with the first post of this series. Trump had been in office less than a month, and his cabinet was being sworn in. Less than a week before my first post, Mike Pence cast the tie-breaking vote to make Betsy DeVos the Secretary of Education. The senate was split 50-50 on Ms. DeVos, and Pence's vote broke that tie.
Everyone seemed to have an opinion about this. Ms. DeVos was not qualified, this was a travesty, hot air, hot air, hot air. I'd been a teacher for 14-years at that point, and was asked quite often what I thought about this. I could ever only come back to one thing: I couldn't believe people are actually talking about education.
In the previous years, few seemed to care. They might feel teachers either made too much or too little or say something about No Child Left Behind, but no one had deep thoughts or content about things that actually matter. But like many things and hot-topic issues in the era of social media, people said their piece and then went away. Around this time, I had dinner with someone that knew Ms. DeVos. I wanted an audience, I said after a few beers. He looked at me and said, "What would you say?"
I thought that was a really good question. What would I say? If I had an audience with Ms. DeVos, what would I say to her? How could I take my thoughts, opinions, and experience and use if for tangible change? Then I realized that though I don't have a personal audience with Ms. DeVos, I do have this platform; I don't need to speak to her, I can write it here, which I've done for the past year.
Before I started the series, I went through my old writings. I had hundreds of pages on education. I had journals and narratives, technical pieces on evaluations, and well-researched papers on school change. I looked through them, thought about it, and structured this series.
One thing that had bugged me was that people often dogged the U.S. educational system. When they talk about it, it's always negative. These people miss something very important: it works in a lot of places. When it comes to the United States, we do two things very well: we take care of the top, and we take care of the bottom. In this country, we have thousands of excellent schools and school systems. We also take care of our students with special needs in a way that is filled with mercy, love, and compassion. We should celebrate this. We should emulate this. And then we should focus our efforts on those that need us.
In many of our disadvantaged communities, read: poor and minority, we do a terrible job educating. I believe this is systematic oppression that keeps these people down. This American Life did a great job of describing this in The Problem We All Live With. It's well worth the listen. I've taught in a lot of schools like those mentioned in the podcast, and what's true at all of them is that most of the kids are good, hard-working, respectful students that want to do well. Often, the problem is that well is not defined for them. The teacher may be the only the professional person they see in a day. And this is quite a responsibility.
Many such schools cannot get enough teachers to fill the staff. Students may have substitutes two class periods a day for their high school career. Some students will go through these schools never reading a book, and never having homework. The question then becomes: Who's problem is this?
It is not the children's. It is ours.
The child that does what is asked of them, puts forth effort, is kind and respectful, takes an active role in class, helps around the school, and yet leaves a building un-educated has done nothing wrong. They've done what is asked. In their eyes, showing up to school, doing what you're told, and following the rules is the right thing. And this must be the case. If and when that child is not ready for the world they're about to enter, that falls upon us. It is injustice, and it must change.
That's what this series is about. It is for them. It is for the dozens of kids I can name, hundreds I've seen, and thousands I've been around that show up every day for 12-years only to be let down by well-paid, highly educated people. I can summarize the series into this: we need a structure for our schools, and good people in them. One good principal can change (or conversely, fuck up) a school. Students want structure, and this should be in place throughout. I wrote more in depth about all of this, but the bolded sentence is my main point and thought.
I appealing to money. We spend 120,000 per child, so we might as well make this count. It should be worth it. Look at your next tax bill. A lot of your money goes to schools. If this is wasted: complain.
The other thing, though, is that there is something you can do. You can make your school and district better. It takes 15 families. Schools are public places, so their meetings are open to the public. At the beginning of every meeting, there is room for public comment. You can use this time to raise hell. In your public comment, you and 14 others can mention how bad the school is, how this is unethical, and how it needs to be fixed. A district cannot ignore you. Show up to the meetings, do so every week, comment every week, and you will see change. If nothing happens, or if it happens slower than you'd like, call someone higher. A senator, the mayor, whoever. You will not be ignored.
It's on us. We can do it.
I'll end with this. In the city I live in, Grand Rapids, MI, I have two friends that live, literally, on border of our city and the city over, East Grand Rapids. Their respective side yard and backyard border another city. If their kids went to Grand Rapids Public, they'd average a 16 on their ACT. If they went to East Grand Rapids, they'd average a 24. This 8-point difference in student average, during their junior year, shows the disparity. One group is more than ready for the next step in life; one group is ready for nothing. Of course and obviously, there are a host of reasons for this. I've written about them. But in an age where numbers don't lie, and numbers are used for so much, let's look at those numbers. What's working in one place that's not working in another? How can an 8-point (out of 36 pts, but really onl 13-30 matter) difference happen on average? Well, one place does something right every day, week, and school year. The other does something wrong on those same days.
We owe it to our children, we owe it to our cities, we owe it to our states, we owe it to our countries. We can, and must, do better.
So, now you have the answer to that question (and though I've left some things out, you'll be able to read updates here): What would I say? It's all here. I end this series, on my birthday, having said my piece.